Published transcript of an interview with Rohini Nilekani and Jayesh Parekh (Author), in What Shall We Do With All This Money? – Inspiring perspectives on Wealth
Published transcript of an interview with Rohini Nilekani and Jayesh Parekh (Author), in What Shall We Do With All This Money? – Inspiring perspectives on Wealth
This is an edited version of a speech delivered by Rohini Nilekani to a closed door gathering of Asian philanthropists.
Most of us in this room are on a journey of discovery as philanthropists. We recognize that we have been lucky, we are fortunate to have wealth way beyond our needs. We want to use that wealth not just to satisfy our own whims but also to act as trustees of that wealth for the public good.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, as Lao Tse Tung famously said. For me, that step can be described as a restlessness. Since I was very young, I wanted to help create positive change. I was unhappy with the state of society in my country, India, where there was so much injustice and inequity, where there was so much poverty and lack of opportunity. I did not want to live in a society like that. I wanted to live in a better society, where there was more hope and more justice. I did not know then that I would find my way to extreme wealth and unprecedented opportunity to be part of the change I was seeking. But I did know that I would have to do something with my life that reflected my desire for the good society, or samaaj, as we call it.
All of us have influencers that shape our thinking and our action. In my case, one of the earliest influences that was the oft repeated story of my paternal grandfather, Babasaheb Soman, who showed exemplary commitment to the larger public interest all his life, first as a lawyer who encouraged out of court settlements without a fee, then as a follower of Gandhiji during the freedom movement.
Later as a journalist, I was able to meet thinkers, policy makers and report on various issues of society for the media organizations I worked at. That too helped me understand how ordinary people deal with all the challenges they face. I call the FIRST MILE, and I try even today to keep my ear to the ground.
My husband co-founded a software company in 1981, and I was lucky enough to be able to invest in it, as my husband did not have much money then! This small amount of Rs 10,000 or 1000 yuan that i put into Infosys from my savings later turned me into a wealthy woman. I must admit that it took me years to adjust to my wealth. In India, middle class people, like I was, look at wealth with great suspicion! It took me a while to figure out that in fact, I could use this wealth for precisely the kind of activism I wanted to engage in, to be part of the better society I yearned for. So my husband became an accidental entrepreneur and I became an accidental philanthropist.
Once I had internalized that, I moved quickly. I co-founded two organizations in the early 2000’s. The first was Arghyam, to help me learn to do philanthropy better. By 2005, after many experiments, we decided to focus on water, and for the past 14 years, we have been supporting good organizations all over India to improve people’s access to sustainable water. Our work has had significant policy impact, and we have worked closely with state governments and the Union government as well. In our latest avatar, we are attempting a shift from incremental to exponential by helping design a shared infrastructure for the water sector in india, especially for capacity building and data management. It is scary, it is risky, it is outside our comfort zone as an organization, but it fulfills the true role of philanthropic capital – which is to underwrite risk and innovation. So even if we fail, it is still the right thing to have tried.
The second organization I co-founded and funded in 2004 was Pratham Books. I gave it the grand vision statement of “A book in every child’s hand”, so that we were born as a scale organization, determined to be not just a not for profit publisher, but to disrupt the whole ecosystem of children’s publishing in India, which was hardly serving the needs of 250 million children. For us, it was a societal mission to democratize the joy of reading, which was the main anchor of my childhood.We started publishing in multiple Indian languages, created new, local, appropriate content, found new ways of distribution, and encouraged many new writers, editors and translators. The real breakthrough we had was to open source our content under the Creative Commons license. Since we wanted more children to access good books, and we did not have to worry about profitability, this was a perfect way to really open up the space. Our books were online, they were free to download, to read, to print, even to sell. By the time I left Pratham Books in 2014, we had already reached millions of children.
But a good founder must know when to step down. My succession plan at Pratham Books has worked better than I dreamed of. The new team has take the open platform idea even further as Story Weaver. Now it is a global platform with content in up to 200 languages, reaching millions of children around the world . There are even 250 stories in Mandarin if you want to look them up.
Even while I was putting my time into my own institutions, I was very aware that I do not have all the ideas and all the solutions. That philanthropists must not fall into the trap of doing things inside their own fence.
So, From the beginning, I also have supported ideas, individuals and institutions that display integrity and commitment to some sectors in which I have a long term interest – education, the environment, the arts, justice, good governance, active citizenship, media and gender equity- especially working with young men and boys.
This has allowed me to build a portfolio in these sectors, supporting dozens of entities around the country. I have always tried to begin from a position of trust with these organizations. It is very import that donors do not become dictators, and that they do not burden organizations with undue requests on outcome reporting that take away too much time and resources from the primary agenda of the team. This attitude has really helped me find the most interesting and innovative people to work with. I am proud of the flourishing civil society sector in India, where a breed of young and new organizations is innovating rapidly to solve emerging societal problems.
In many of these institutions I have been the first funder, taking a bet on the social entrepreneur. Only rarely have they failed to deliver. Soon, they begin to attract other funding, and though it is so hard to stay on the path of social action, with so many challenges, most of these organizations are now dreaming of scaling up. I am willing to support them at this stage of scaling up as well, which requires investing in instruction building and core capacity, where it is unfortunately hard to find other funders.
Both Nandan and I invest heavily in supporting institutions committed to long term change at scale. Some are think tanks that will have policy impact, others are building professional capacity in critical areas such as urban design, climate action, higher education etc. Supporting societal institutions is critical in a country where both markets and the state cannot solve complex societal issues on their own or even together.
In fact, the underlying philosophy between all that I do in my work is that good civic institutions, moral leadership and social innovations are the foundation of a successful society. In the continuum of samaaj (society) bazaar (markets) and sarkaar (state ), my work is firmly in the samaaj (society) sector. I believe that active citizens of the samaaj can make sure that power is held to account, that the markets and the state can be held responsible for the larger public interest. Of course, samaaj needs good institutions of both state and market to work alongside with, and we have always tried to build partnerships across sectors.
This is what has led us to what we call Societal Platform Thinking, which we have deployed at an organization Nandan and I confounded four year ago, called Ekstep, to bring learning opportunities to 200 million children. It is the first time that I have worked directly with my husband, and I am happy to report that the marriage is still surviving despite us having very different approaches and experiences in philanthropy!
Through Ekstep we have built a technology infrastructure for learning, which has been adopted by the Indian government to create a National Teacher Platform called Diksha, on which tens of thousands of teachers and millions of children will be able to learn and share.
As I come to an end of my talk, let me share some principles of Societal Platform Thinking, which incorporate all the lessons Nandan and I and the teams have learnt over three decades of our work. It is a values framework that has evolved over time.
Societal Platform Thinking is a way of looking at complex societal challenges. Systems change can only be addressed if samaaj, bazaar and sarkaar, state society and markets are able to work together with reduced friction to collaborate and co-create
The team has developed some founding guidelines for such action.
1. For many participants to work together, we need a platform, connecting many nodes. This should be a UNIFIED BUT NOT UNIFORM structure, so that situational diversity can be harnessed for designing appropriate responses. Context matters , and local actors know best what solutions can be developed in their particular situation. The platform must allow for that local knowledge to be applied, to ENABLE DIVERSITY AT SCALE.
2. Every change begins with something who feels the need for the change. We call these leaders system builders. Those who can put our bold visions that excite everyone to participate. A system builder must invest to CO-CREATE A TECHNOLOGY BACKBONE FOR A SHARED INFRASTRUCTURE for all stakeholders. However, the mission should not be technology led. It must be technology enabled. The goal of the tech infrastructure is to engage people seamlessly as possible. This technology infrastructure must be developed as Open, accessible PUBLIC DIGITAL GOODS, so that samaaj bazaar and sarkaar can build on top of it.
3. In such a scenario, there is no point trying to create ONE solution, no matter how great or effective. It is better and more sustainable, to DISTRIBUTE THE ABILITY TO SOLVE.
4. If the ability to solve can be distributed, you can find ideas from anywhere, solution making becomes discoverable, and lessons can be quickly shared. IT ALSO HELPS RESTORE AGENCY TO PEOPLE TO INNOVATE. Then they become part of the solution instead of remaining part of the problem. And the whole system become flexible, and remains open to EVOLVABILITY, one step at a time.
5. Often, philanthropists and civic entrepreneurs try out small pilots and then try to replicate them. Often, pilots succeed and scale up fails. That’s why it is important to design for scale in the beginning, and realize that there is a difference between scaling up what works and figuring out WHAT WORKS AT SCALE. Some of the points above allow you to design for population level systems change.
Today, some of these frameworks are getting embedded in a few areas of global philanthropic collaborations, of which I mention just one- Co- Impact, in which about 10 international entities have invested, including Nandan and myself, to seriously scale up impact in various societal missions.
At the end of all that, and all those big words I used, however, I want to say just this.
We are all trying to make a better world. Nothing is more humbling in one’s life than when we come to the realization , which all of us come to very quickly in this journey, that social change is the hardest thing we have ever attempted. We have all been successful in our businesses or our professions – we can even pat ourselves on the backs for it.
But making lasting change for the good is incredibly difficult. It requires us to cultivate humility, patience, and hope every single day.
So more than ever, let us dedicate ourselves to connecting our pockets to our heads and especially our hearts. Let us deploy our philanthropy, to build on the human spirit while always seeking what magnifies and elevates our own spirit. Let us stay curious, connected and committed.
Whenever I feel a little low, I remember Lao Tzu, whom i quote again.
“What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.”
Namaste and Thank you. Xie-Xie.
परवाह… इस बार त्योहारों में परिवार के साथ उत्सव मनाते हम कुछ वक्त पेड़ों के रोचक दुनिया को भी जानें।
अब ज्यों ही त्योहारों का मौसम आ रहा है, हम इस साल भरपूर मानसून के लिए खुश हो सकते हैं। दुर्भाग्य से कई इलाके ऐसे भी हैं जहां बाढ़ के गंभीर हालात बने। इस देश में हमें अब बदलते वातावरण के साथ अतिवृष्टि और बाढ़ से निपटना सीखना होगा। पेड़ और जंगल इसके बचाव की रणनीति का एक महत्वपूर्ण हिस्सा हैं। ये सूखे महीनों के लिए पानी को इकट्ठा कर रखते हैं और मिट्टी का कटाव बचाते हैं। इन दिनों पेड़ और पर्यावरण से जुड़े मुद्दे हर वक्त खबरों में रहते हैं। शहरी भारत की नई पीढ़ी को यह एहसास होने लगा है कि पेड़ उनके स्वास्थ्य और भविष्य के लिए कितने अहम हैं। शायद एक नई ‘चिपको पीढ़ी’ तैयार हो रही है। हाल ही में मुंबई के आरे मिल्क कॉलोनी में पेड़ काटने के विरोध में युवा सड़कों पर उतरे। वह पेड़ जो शायद उस शहर में साफ हवा की आखिरी उम्मीद में से एक हैं। उस शहर की, जिसने पिछले 20 सालों की सबसे खराब एयर क्वालिटी 2018 में झेली है। यह विरोध सालों से चल रहा है। मुझे भरोसा है कि ये लोग जो खुद मेट्रो से चलते हैं, शहरी इंफ्रास्ट्रक्चर की अहमियत समझते हैं, जिसके लिए ये पेड़ काटे जाने हैं। फिर भी, दुनियाभर के युवाओं की तरह ये युवा भी बड़ों से पर्यावरण और विकास के बीच सामंजस्य बैठाने की गुहार लगा रहे हैं। हम जानते हैं कि रियल एस्टेट और मेट्रो के लिए शेड बनाने की कीमत क्या होती है। लेकिन हमारे पास ऐसा कोई तरीका नहीं जिससे एक तंदरुस्त जंगल का मूल्य पता कर सकें। जंगल या पेड़ों को मिनटों में काटा या जलाया जा सकता है, लेकिन उन्हें उगने में कई दशक लग जाते हैं। और लोगों को इसकी असल कीमत वायु प्रदूषण, बढ़ते तापमान जैसी दिक्कतों का सामना कर चुकानी होती है। खासकर मुंबई जैसे तटवर्ती शहरों में पेड़, वेटलैंड्स और मैंग्रोव बाढ़ से जुड़े खतरों से बचाते हैं। इसलिए यह अच्छा साइंस और कॉमनसेंस है कि हम ज्यादा से ज्यादा पेड़ों को बचाएं। क्योंकि हर पेड़ न बचाया जा सकता है न ही बचाया जाना चाहिए।
मुझे हाल में अपने बगीचे में कई पौधे लगाने का मौका मिला। अपने हाथों से पौधा रोपने से जो संतुष्टि मिलती है उसे व्यक्त करना मुश्किल है। और उसकी देखभाल करना तब तक, जब तक वह मजबूत पेड़ न बन जाए ऐसी खुशी देता है जिसे अनुभव ही किया जा सकता है। वास्तव में पेड़ थैरेपी भी दे सकते हैं। जापानी लोग “जंगल स्नान’ करते हैं, जिसे वे शिनरिन-योकू कहते हैं। रिसर्च के मुताबिक इस स्नान से रोग-प्रतिरोधक क्षमता मजबूत और तनाव कम होता है। उनका सुझाव है कि पांचों इद्रियों के साथ महसूस करते हुए जंगल में चलना-बैठना चाहिए। कंक्रीट के जंगलों में रहने को मजबूर दुनियाभर के लोग इसे अपना रहे हैं। पड़ोस का पार्क भी यह उद्देश्य पूरा कर सकता है। वैज्ञानिक पिछले कुुछ सालों में पेड़ों के बारे में बहुत कुछ सीख रहे हैं। नई रोचक रिसर्च से कुछ जानकारियां मिली हैं जिसे अब वुड वाइड वेब कहा जाता है। जिस तरह वर्ल्ड वाइड वेब दुनियाभर के लोगों को जानकारियां साझा करने का जरिया देता है, वैसे ही पेड़ों का अपना जटिल कम्युनिकेशन सिस्टम है, वह भी 4.5 करोड़ साल पुराना। जाहिर तौर पर हम इंसानों के नर्वस सिस्टम की तरह पेड़ों का भी ऐसा कुछ होता है जिसकी मदद से वे एक दूसरे से बात कर सकते हैं, सीख सकते हैं और याद भी रख सकते हैं। पेड़ बैक्टीरिया और फंगस के सहजीवी सिस्टम का इस्तेमाल कर एक दूसरे को खाना और ज्ञान देते हैं। पेड़ों की जड़ों पर मौजूद फंगस उनसे शक्कर लेती हैं और बदले में नाइट्रोजन और फॉस्फोरस के रूप में पोषण देती हैं। पेड़ फंगस के माइकोरिजल नेटवर्क का इस्तेमाल दूसरे जरूरतमंद पेड़ों को खाना देने के लिए करते हैं। वह केमिकल सिग्नल के जरिए शिकारी या आक्रामक प्रजातियों से खतरे की चेतावनी भी भेजते हैं। ताकि वह पेड़ खतरनाक हार्मोन्स या केमिकल्स पैदा कर खतरे से खुद को बचा सकें। जंगल में अचानक आई विपदा जैसे कि वनों की कटाई के वक्त, पेड़ एक दूसरे को तनाव के संकेत भी भेज सकते हैं।
फंगस के जरिए तैयार यह कम्युनिकेशन नेटवर्क जंगल के सिस्टम को तंदरुस्त रखता है। कुछ एक फंगस और पेड़ों के बीच खास रिश्ता होता है। इसलिए ज्यादातर संवाद एक जैसी प्रजाति के बीच होते हैं। इसके बावजूद वह दूसरी प्रजाति के पेड़ों से भी बात कर सकते हैं। रिसर्च में पता चला है कि अलग-अलग प्रजातियों के बीच संवाद से पेड़ों को स्वस्थ और लचीला रहने में मदद मिलती है। शहरों में पेड़ ज्यादातर अकेले रहते हैं। कंक्रीट ढांचों के बीच वह दूसरे पेड़ों से संवाद नहीं कर पाते और उनके फंगल नेटवर्क को भी नुकसान पहुंचता है। जिससे उनकी उम्र और जीवन शक्ति कम हो जाती है। पेड़ उगाने के अभियानों में शामिल शहरी लोगों के लिए यह समझना और याद रखना बेहद जरूरी है। वह एक प्रजाति के पेड़ों को समूह में लगाएं और उनके बीच की मिट्टी को अतिक्रमण से मुक्त रखें।
हमारे भाग्य को पेड़ों से अलग नहीं किया जा सकता। उन्हें जीने के लिए जरूरत है स्वस्थ इकोसिस्टम की और हमें जिंदा रहने के लिए दरकार है स्वस्थ पेड़ों की। वह ऑक्सीजन देते हैं, कॉर्बन सोख लेते हैं, मिट्टी का कटाव रोक, पानी सहेजते हैं। इन सब जगजाहिर जानकारियों के अलावा हमें अब ये भी पता चला है कि पेड़ों को फंगल नेटवर्क की जरूरत होती है इसलिए मनुष्य को भी है। इसलिए हमें पेड़ों की जड़ों पर रहनेवाले विविध जीवों को बचाना होगा। यह जानकारी हमारे लिए कवच सी है। क्योंकि नई पीढ़ी ने बीड़ा उठाया है खुद को सेहतबख्श कर प्राकृतिक दुनिया को सेहतबख्श करने के चुनौतीपूर्ण काम का। यह शुरुआत है भारत में लंबे त्योहारों वाले मौसम की। कोई भी त्योहार पेड़ों से मिले उत्पादों के बिना अधूरा है। आम के पत्ते, नारियल, फूल, फल या सोने की पत्ती के नाम से महाराष्ट्र में दशहरे पर बांटी जानेवाली पत्तियां। क्यों न इस साल देवी देवताओं को नमन करते हुए या फिर परिवार के साथ उत्सव मनाते हम कुछ वक्त माइकोरिजल नेटवर्क के बारे में सोचें। उस जीव के बारे में जो पेड़ों की जड़ों पर मौजूद है। आखिरकार, त्योहार और दस्तूर बने ही हैं हमारी पवित्र भावना को तरोताजा करने और धरती पर जीवन के इस जटिल जाल से अपने गहरे संबंधों को दोबारा जोड़ने के लिए।
This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s closing keynote address delivered to the 2019 class of the Strategic Non-Profit Management – India offered developed in conjunction with the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative and offered in association with the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropyat Ashoka University.
People often refer to the social sector as the third sector, but I would argue that it actually has to be the first sector. In the continuum of samaaj (society), bazaar (the marketplace), and sarkaar (the state), the samaaj must come first. Bazaar and sarkaar were created to serve the samaaj. The samaaj includes all of us, and it has simply created the bazaar to serve its economic interests and the sarkaar to serve equality to all people, on a large scale.
However, over the centuries, the other two sectors – the state and the market – have acquired tremendous power. Technological advancement has enabled the accumulation of that power in ways completely unimaginable even a few years ago. It’s crucial that we understand the implications of the accumulation of power by the state and markets. In our hearts, we are citizens first, before consumers or subjects of the state. So we need social organisations that protect the wellbeing of the samaaj, and hold the bazaar and sarkaar accountable.
Balancing the Scales
Both the bazaar and the sarkaar have become extremely successful at driving scale, especially over the last few years. The market will always chase profits, acquire more customers, and accumulate power. Similarly, when the state achieves scale, it’s accumulating a lot of power for its continuing legitimacy. Both these forms of accumulation of power can create tremendous public good. Markets improve our lives in amazing ways every single day. The state enables the distribution of public services in a way that a sole individual could not possibly achieve.
What we really need in the social sector, is a mechanism of checks and balances, to hold these powers accountable to society. Today, civil society has an especially critical role in ensuring that the state increases equity, along with efficiency, and that markets are responsible while increasing profitability. Both the state and the market have also recognized that they cannot achieve success on their own, without the cooperation of the samaaj. Human problems are so interconnected today, that the state and the market are quite open to the intervention of civil society in many areas.
However, there are other threats as well. The three freedoms of democracy – the right to speak freely, the right to associate freely, and the right to practice one’s own beliefs, come with duties, which don’t get talked about enough. People must have the right to speak freely, but without deliberately hurting others; the right to form associations without turning into mobs; and the right to practice one’s beliefs, without preventing others from practicing theirs. So there are duties and rights, but these freedoms are increasingly being distorted.
It’s therefore important for all of us in the social sector to ensure we play a balancing role. While the state and the markets have been remarkably successful at achieving scale, whether the social sector can achieve that has always been a bit doubtful. Sometimes, I wonder if being unable to scale is a failure of imagination on our part. After all, Mahatma didn’t just try to improve the lives of people in the Porbandar District. He wasn’t just trying to improve the lot of all of the citizens of India. Rather, he was trying to transform humanity at its core. His imagination was that big and nothing would come in the way. The trade-off for our independence was not going to be sacrificing our humanity –that was the scale of his imagination.
Vinoba Bhave is another example that comes to mind. He was not trying to rescue land from just one district. He was talking about the redistribution of land, a very primary source of inequity in this country, across the nation. Jayaprakash Narayan’s Sampoorna Kranti was not only about one class or one identity group replacing the other. It was an imagination at a much loftier level. That’s how these stalwarts achieved scale, because of the scale of their imagination and their intent to affect change on that level. I wonder if the social sector now has lost a bit of that zeal for imagination. We all belong to the tribe of Gandhi, Vinoba, and Jayaprakash Narayan, and we need to look to the state and markets to understand how we can achieve scale in this sector as well.
The Need for Societal Platform Thinking
Clearly, the motivation for scale is different in the three sectors. In the social sector, our goal is to improve human dignity, to create better access to goods and services, to restore agency, to increase creativity, and much more. Essentially, it is to give Izzat, Insaaf, Imandari to people. So when our goal is different from the market or the state, it’s clear that we can’t think of scale in the same way that they do.
Over the last 30 years, Nandan and I have been working in very different fields. Nandan has been a successful entrepreneur with Infosys, managing to get some 1.3 billion people another kind of system, as well as doing philanthropic work. I have been working within the social sector, helping individual institutions and ideas spread and grow. Through our work, the goal was to create more public goods in the public sphere, but we’ve also failed a lot in this regard. This is because it’s far easier to make a profitable company or a successful state, than it is to create real, lasting social change. Many wealthy philanthropists I’ve met have expressed the same feeling. They start out assuming that if they can create a successful business, why not a great social sector organisation? But when they actually try it, they find just how hard it is to create scale in the social sector. So we have to understand why scale is very different in this sector.
Since 2015, Nandan and I have been working together on EkStep, with the goal that we will reach the 200 million children in this country with increased access to learning opportunities. We both have different but complementary approaches to achieving this, and through the years, we have developed something called Societal Platform Thinking. When we are trying to solve complex, interdependent societal problems, we have to be careful how we go about doing this. Our methods have to be based on certain morally undeniable principles and philosophies. We have arrived at five of these basic principles, to help us and others get started.
The first thing we’ve learned is that however great a certain solution might be, if our aim is to solve at the root cause level and scale, just pushing one solution down the pipeline will not work. We have to design to distribute the ability to solve. This means that you need to implicitly trust people, and trust in their ability to be part of the solution. It becomes a question of design, where people need to see clearly, and be trusted to get involved in coming up with solutions.
The other thing that we learnt over time is that resources like money, people, talent, etc. are hard to come by. So many things, in terms of public goods, are hard to come by when you’re trying to scale something. So we began to think through this, and we found that if you unpack complex social problems, you often find a core that is common. When you look at the common core, you realize that there are ways to make those scarce resources plentiful. Sometimes there is abundance under your nose, it just exists in different forms. For example, if we think about education, it’s very difficult to find professional, competent teachers. But if we look at the system, there are parents, and para-teachers in abundance. So now the question becomes how to involve them as part of the solution?
Most of the problems that we need to scale for are contextual. The solution that might work in one place, might not work 100 kilometres down the road. There is a lot of diversity in India, and therefore pushing just one cookie-cutter solution won’t work. So how do you design to scale up diversity? How will your solutions work for diversity at scale? For that, in your design, you have to create a unified but not uniform intervention, design, infrastructure, and framework. Unified because we all have to achieve the same goal. There’s no use having a completely disparate kind of structure. It has to be unified but not uniform, so that you can achieve this contextual diversity at scale, which is necessary in a country like ours.
To ensure this, you need a digital tech backbone to distribute the ability to solve because you need multi-directional feedback loops. You need data coming in, not just being delivered at one end, but moving around all the streams so that people can use the data. But while technology is needed, we have learnt that you have to be technology-enabled. If you’re technology-led, you tend to make a lot mistakes about outcome thinking, because technology-led solutions can give you false sense of success. You can just rack up the numbers, rack up some data points, but you may not actually get the social outcome that you want. That’s important to keep in mind, because people today can get carried away thinking that the technology is the solution.
These are the kind of building blocks we are using at EkStep to design, to reach those 200 million people. We’re working with the state, and civil society, and the markets, to move the needle to reach those kids. So in the social sector, when we are thinking of scale, we need this kind of societal platform thinking, these social innovation labs where we can generate ideas, and more importantly, we can fail and learn from them.
Taking Risks and Embracing Failure
We all fail, but what’s important is that we are not afraid of failure. I think a lot about Gandhi, and how one of the reasons he went to South Africa was because he had failed as a lawyer. That failure launched a transformational epoch for humanity. Clearly, it’s how we deal with that failure that matters. Social innovation labs allow for that, that pull and push of failing, getting up, failing again, and succeeding.
However, in this sector, it’s very hard for us to acknowledge failure. Philanthropists are very risk averse. Most philanthropists are very successful in business, and they’ve taken huge risk to get there. But often, when they move to the social sector, they forget how to take risks. Since they are now dealing with people’s lives and futures, and common public goods, they want every venture to succeed. Businesses are allowed to fail. In fact, failure in Silicon Valley is celebrated. But in the social sector, if you fail, you might adversely affect a thousand people’s lives because of your mistake. As social sector organisations, it’s very hard to tell your donors that you’ve failed, but still need more money from them as well.
However, it’s time that we create spaces and platforms where donors, foundations, and members of civil society organizations come together and destigmatise this notion of failure. The question should now become how we do deal with failure, so that we can keep innovating? When we think about scale, we need failure, because without failure, there’s no innovation, and without innovation, there’s no solution for scale. So fear of failure may also lead to fear of scaling, and I think we are stuck somewhere in that fear. We should strive for platforms where donors and civil society organizations can meet in a safe space to talk about these things.
Although we live in a digital age, civil society in India has a lot of catching up to do. Some of my civil society friends are downright techno-phobic, and they assume all technology is bad. This is a huge challenge for us as a country of people who are not digital natives, but need to advance a younger population who are. We cannot afford to stay the way we are, because the accumulation of power is also happening digitally. Unless we understand how to work efficiently in a digital age, and through digital means, we will not have the internal resources and external tool kits to hold the sarkaar and bazaar accountable. The Indian civil sector needs to come into the digital age, which means the donor community needs to support this as well.
At the heart of all this, the motivation for our work is to restore dignity and agency to people. Roosevelt once said, “Look to the stars, but keep your feet on the ground,” and I think that’s what we should keep in mind when we think about scaling our work, especially in the philanthropy sector.
This is an edited version of a talk Rohini Nilekani gave as part of a curated series called ‘Speaking of the City,’ curated by Bangalore’s World-Famous Semi-Deluxe Writing Program at Shoonya. Rohini talks about the city’s role in her work as a philanthropist and social innovator.
An Accidental Bangalorean
It’s been 35 years since our arrival in Bangalore in 1984. That’s three and a half decades, most of my life, and certainly more than I spent in Mumbai, the town I was born and grew up in. So clearly, I am a Bangalorean now, there’s no two ways about it. But we weren’t the first to arrive in Bangalore. Infosys and Wipro were the third wave, but it was the public sector institutions that came in the ‘50s and ‘60s that brought in new kinds of migrants to the city. After the public institutions like BEL, HMT, ITI, etc. entered the picture, they brought with them a lot of new people and a new culture to Bangalore. Then in the ‘70s there was a phase of government factories as well as the hardware industries that were being set up in the city. It was only in the ‘80s that the IT revolution truly began here. The government itself decided to set up Electronic City, and brought in a lot of companies, Infosys, very clearly a major one among them.
That’s what really began our journey to Bangalore. For Nandan, who was born there, it was like a homecoming, but it was new to me – and the Infosys story was new to everyone. The story of Infosys captured media attention in the early ‘90s, as India’s first software company to set up its own five-acre premises in Electronic City. In 1993, the IPO meant it would be a public company that was an emblem for this new narrative: middle class professionals who wanted to beat the dynastic capitalists at their own game. It reflected the idea that you could remain true to your values and could still ethically create real wealth and an institution to be proud of. For us, the story of Infosys has been running like a thread through our own lives.
When we first moved to Bangalore, we lived in a house in 4th T Block, Jayanagar, with D. Linge Gowda as our landlord. He had just run an unsuccessful election campaign as a Congress candidate against Ramakrishna Hegde of the Janata Party in a Kanakapura by-election, and had lost. It was great to be living close to the Gowdas. Every day, in the evenings, I would sit with his wife for half an hour on the steps going up to our little flat and she would help me learn Kannada. Thanks to her, I was able to get a bit of a grounding in Kannada and also learn about the local food, since she used to call me down to her kitchen to have “akki” roti and other snacks. With that foundation, I was confident enough to make full public speeches in Kannada, and I always hoped that my enthusiasm would make up for my poor grammar. I made many mistakes along the way, but I found the Kannada people were always supportive to somebody who was trying to learn the language.
We brought up our children here, in this beautiful city, and I outsourced a lot of parenting to Valley School. With its 100 acres for the children to play in and Krishnamurti’s philosophy of “no reward, no punishment,” the children were as happy going to school as they were to come home. We also did a lot of ‘bussing’ in those days, taking two, three buses to go to Malleshwaram, work, etc. My father-in-law, particularly, was a great supporter of anything to do with the public sector, and he taught me how to get around the city using public transport.
As a journalist I used to write for local papers, and one of the earliest things I remember was marching with an organisation called Vimochana, which worked with women’s rights. We used to have placards outside people’s houses where there had been dowry deaths. I went there partly as a participant activist and partly as a reporter and sometimes the police would come and crack down on the protests. I used to go to report stories at the BBMP office, and one of my biggest goof-ups was when the officer I had gone to meet was not in his seat, and I asked his colleagues, “Lanchake hogidaara?” I learnt much later that that was not the smartest thing to say. Then, of course, there were the same old haunts that everyone used to go to, like Koshy’s, Vidyarthi Bhavan, MTR, Lalbagh, Cubbon Park – we did all the things that most Bangloreans used to do then. I even went through a phase of wanting to do Urdu shayari, and I took lessons from a gentleman called Khalil Ur Rehman, who was a DIG Intelligence officer who gave up his evenings to teach me Urdu. These are the kinds of people you meet in this city, who are willing to give so much of themselves to help someone else.
Writing In The City
Since I moved to Bangalore in ‘84, I was writing for several papers, including India Today and local papers as well. In ‘87, Vir Sanghvi had taken over as Editor of the Sunday Magazine, so it was an easy decision to join the magazine. With Gauri Lankesh as my predecessor, I was in excellent company though I couldn’t stay there for too long. I was also writing scripts for documentaries, and doing a lot of children’s writing at the time, to keep myself busy. Then I wrote my first novel, ‘Still Born,’ which was definitely inspired by the city.
The story follows Poorva Pandit, a journalist who lived in Basavanagudi, but it was also about a Bangalore that was growing into new media, that was growing into buildings of glass and concrete; where Basavanagudi itself was changing. I’ve just recently learned that Basavanagudi is one of the oldest settlements of this new city we call Bangalore. It was set up in 1895 as a refuge for people who were escaping the plague. So the city was very much at the background of my novel, and in the story, Poorva actually uses technology to solve her problems.
One of the inspirations for that was Atul Chitnis, who was really the pioneer of the open source movement in Bangalore. So the characters of the city also found their way into the novel, including Dr. Sudarshan, who has been working for decades in the BR hills with the Soliga tribals there, where the story is also partly based. My second book, ‘Uncommon Ground’ was based on a television series I did, where I interviewed corporate and social leaders together. I got Anand Mahindra to speak to Medha Patkar; I got Aruna Roy to speak to Sunil Mittal and so on, as a series. I thought it needed to be documented into a book which was called by the same name, ‘Uncommon Ground.’
When I think about the possibility of a third book, my inspiration would have to come from the many city writers that I have been meeting over the last so many decades, including Vivek Shanbagh, Anita Nair, and so many others. Shashi Deshpande, with whom I have had the honour to interact and learn from, on how to have a deep commitment to writing. And I’m always grateful to have been able to get Girish Karnad’s blessings on things like Ratnam Books. It’s a great time to remember, that even if Girish is no more, his work will always continue to live with us and be in our hearts.
A Space For Philanthropy
My philanthropy would have been very different if I had lived anywhere else, because this is a city of reformers. I keep joking that there are more reformers per square inch in Bangalore than in any other place in the country. It’s like a landmine of reformers – you have to be very careful, you can trip over them anytime. The kind of passion, open-mindedness, and commitment that I see here has convinced me that there’s no city in India quite like Bangalore. So living here is a dream for someone who has suddenly accumulated far too much wealth and wants to give it away. There is a cornucopia of choices for Nandan and I in Bangalore, which I’m very grateful for, because over the years I’ve learnt a lot, there’s been time and space to experiment, and passionate individuals to work alongside.
Early on, I set up an organisation called Nagrik, after one of my very dear friends had been killed in a horrible accident. Kiran Mazumdar, Jagdish Raja, Muralidhar Rao, and many others came together with me, to start Nagrik for safer roads. But it was a bit of a disaster, with a steep learning curve for us. We didn’t have any clue how to do proper institution-building. But we spent a lot of time at the city’s 32,000 junctions, trying to streamline the movement around that. That experience taught me a lot about how to actually engage in public life, and helped me with the other institutions that I supported or started.
In 1999, I was lucky enough to be invited to join Akshara Foundation. Its goal was to get every single child in Bangalore in school and learning by 2003. Well, it’s 2019, and I think we did a pretty good job of mobilising the government and the citizens to make sure that all the public schools were doing better than they were before. We were also able to set up more than 1,000 preschool centres that we call “Balwadis” as part of the Pratham network. The Akshara Foundation really taught me about the city, in a way that all the buses and walks around Lalbagh could not. We set up preschool centres wherever there was a community need for one, including a lot of slum areas across the city, and worked with government schools to set up remedial education centres. These initiatives, however, needed citizen volunteers to run. We needed people who believed in the idea and were willing to volunteer their time, because they weren’t going to earn a fortune by joining us. We used to give a very minimal stipend. So for the princely sum of Rs. 500 or Rs. 750, and we tried to get volunteers.
Hundreds of people came forward to set up Balwadis in their own homes, bringing in 20-30 children from the neighbourhood and spending three to four hours trying to teach them. It soon became a movement, and I’m proud to say that for several years, we were able to sustain it. That’s when I got to see how the people at the margins of the city live, and how their courage, risk-taking ability, and absolute can-do attitude meant that they would do anything for their children’s future, and that education was going to be a very important part of it.
The kind of support that we got was astounding. I remember young Muslim women who came forward, in the hundreds, to become teachers and volunteers, setting up classes in their own home. Some of them would not have had been allowed to work outside of their homes, but this was seen as a safe space for them to go and engage in teaching young children. I’m so grateful the Akshara Foundation is still thriving and continuing their work across many states. Ashok Kamath who just became the Namma Bangalore Achiever was the Chairman and continues to do splendid work.
I also got the chance to set up Pratham Books as well because I was part of Pratham’s network all over India. We were creating many eager new learners. But they had nothing to read, except the textbooks that were sent home to them from school. It’s a tragedy that there were very few children’s books that were attractive, engaging and written in different languages for children to read. So we set up Pratham Books. I took on the responsibility to set it up in Bangalore, together with Ashok Kamath, who did most of the running of the institution. The goal was a book in every child’s hand, and in its 15-year journey, I’m proud to say, I was there for 10 years. Now Suzanne Singh continues to take it to newer heights, and we have reached tens of millions of children – not just in this city, but throughout the country. I think a mark of a good institution is when the founder can move on, and the institution can do better. And I must say, all the institutions I have left have done far better after my leaving them than when I was still there, so I must be a very good founder.
Arghyam came up first as my idea of experimenting with philanthropy, because we came into money suddenly when we participated in the American Depositary motif that we did at Infosys. I personally came into 100 crores. I didn’t need 100 crores for my own life, and we were doing reasonably well. So I decided to put it all into the foundation. But I didn’t know what to do with it, so I first decided to learn some philanthropy heavy-lifting. We saved many children’s lives by helping them get to a respirator in time, we set up yoga centres, and we did some air pollution monitoring.
But in April 2005 I realised that if one wants to be strategic and long term and solve a real problem in society, it would have to be water. So from then on, Arghyam focused on the issue of water in India. For the last 14 years we’ve been working all around the country with various organizations, and hopefully, I’ve made some impact in the water sector. Most of Arghyam’s work is in fact outside Bangalore, except for some peripheral work I’ve been able to do with our lake-saving communities. The last thing we set up ourselves was EkStep. Nandan and I began to work together for the first time in 2014, however we had very different approaches and I didn’t know if this partnership would last, but it’s been almost five years now, and we’ve been able to change the game, bringing learning opportunities to 200 million children, which is our goal for 2020.
But apart from these institutions that we were able to fund ourselves, we were also able to support marvellous people setting up their own institutions. Whether it was BIC, ATREE, or Takshashila; new think tanks and ideas like IIHS (Indian Institute for Human Settlements), each of these institutions was set up by fiery, committed, intelligent people who were able to build both teams and institutions, and Nandan and I have been really lucky to be able to support some of them.
On the arts and culture side, it was also exciting to find entrepreneurs like Arundhati Nag at Ranga Shankara. Bangalore needed to revive its cultural spaces, and she worked so hard at it, but one day she felt that she just couldn’t go on. So she called us we realised that she was almost there, she just needed this one infusion. The next morning, I went with a check of 50 lakhs, and within a few weeks Ranga Shankara was up and running. Today she has so much support, and they do 300+ plays every year. They have completely revived the cultural space of the city. So I feel very proud to be a small part of that. Similarly many other opportunities to enrich the community came to us like the Devnandan Ubhayaker Yuva Sangeet Utsav, a small festival that has provided a big space for young Hindustani musical talent to showcase itself. All these ventures need some philanthropic capital, and it’s good to see that Bangaloreans do come forward.
In fact, India is learning how to crowdfund, and Bangalore is a huge part of this movement. It’s not just the billionaires who can save this country. In fact, billionaire funding for social movements should be a very small part of anything that happens in the country. We just did a report on everyday giving, and Bangaloreans actually account for a huge chunk of India’s growing small-giving. That’s why I love being a part of the city, because the people here are highly engaged as citizens.
When we moved to Koramangala, I got to be part of the RWA, and that’s something that most people are frightened of because they have strict rules. If you park on the wrong side of the road, woe befall you. Somebody will come and move your car. But I’m very proud to see how democracy functions at this basic level. We call civil society the third sector, but I think that’s ludicrous. It is the first sector and it begins where we live, and how we engage with public issues there. So I consider myself very lucky to live in the third block, Koramangala, with all its feisty civic activism. It’s also taught me to question how we protect our commons. How do we prioritize whose needs to be prioritized? Our road is called “billionaires road” because Rajeev Chandrasekhar is on one side, and Pradeep Khar is on another side. But two lanes beyond me, there are people who don’t get as much water as we do, which leads me straight into 2014.
The 2014 election is very sharp in my mind, though the 2019 one is already blurred away. In the heat of that awful April, March, we were all campaigning. Nandan was on the Congress party ticket against the most invincible Ananth Kumar, and we already know how that movie ended. But it was really the most gruelling time I’ve had in the city, with a very rapid learning curve, because politics is the most difficult profession of them all. I don’t think any other profession in this world comes close. It is 24/7 and the kind of demands to come at you all the time are impossible to manage. My respect for politicians went up by 500% in those few months, even though I wouldn’t exactly want to emulate most of their practices.
We listened to people all day long, what they hoped for, what they wanted, what they expected. And we learned exactly what keeps this dysfunctional law, equilibrium politics in place – it is nothing but a system of patronage and brokerage, because nobody wants to solve it. It suits everybody at some level. But it has been allowed to continue like this for so long, which is partly why we have the city that we do.
Sometimes I feel that this city used to be one city, but now it is many cities. In these 35 years, it has become many cities. From eight million people, it has become 13.5 million people. It’s a city I no longer know, because in some ways, our lives have also expanded with it. Though my political ideology was groomed in Mumbai, my political sensibilities were very much developed here – in this city of ideas and reformers, this city of curiosity, the diverse cosmopolitan city of many, many cultures.
But I also never expected, no matter how it grew and how dysfunctional it became, that it would ever be a city where Gauri Lankesh could be shot outside her own home, and where trolls could actually say good things about a man like Girish Karnad dying. No matter how much the city becomes unfamiliar, all of us have a lot of work to do to keep that original idea of the city alive. This is one of the oldest human settlements in India, constructed on the basis of diversity, of mutual respect, of a cultural exploration, of looking forward, not back. There’s miles to do, lots of work to continue doing as citizens of this utterly marvellous city to which I now belong.